The Brenner School and the Agnon School in Hebrew Literature of the Twentieth Century
Bartana, Ortsion, Hebrew Studies Journal
The centrality of Brenner and Agnon in the formation of the Hebrew literature of the twentieth century from its beginning, can be termed here in short: The debate between the "Brenner School" and the "Agnon School." The Brenner School casts doubt on the social values of Judaism and of Zionism, which sprang up in response to Judaism's modern needs. The Brenner School uses contemporary revolutionary concepts to conduct a debate about the Jewish, secular, Zionist person. It does not hesitate to express its conclusions, even if that involves a lack of confidence in the human potential, especially in the Jewish human potential, and also in secular-Zionist moves. The Agnon School entails staying within the boundaries of methodical doubt. It assumes that early Judaism exists and is strong, and will eventually win out in establishing the identity of the Jew, both within and without, both in the debate conducted in Agnon's time, as well as in future debates. These two schools are not populated equally. The Brenner School won an uncontested victory in twentieth-century Hebrew literature. The Agnon School remained largely an empty school--a symbol and not a place of action. The attitude toward these two schools in twentieth-century Hebrew literature involves, before all else, taking a stand on the basic question of the right or obligation of Judaism to continue to exist as a national and collective identity.
This paper presents the outlines of a charged and complex discussion. After defining in detail the notion of the "school," the relations between the two artists will be presented in brief. Then their works will be presented, their literary positions and what they symbolize in Israeli Hebrew literature in the 1960s, the first generation of the State of Israel.
1. PROLOGUE--"SCHOOLS" IN THE HEBREW LITERATURE OF THE BEGINNING OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The status of Hebrew literature within the Hebrew-speaking cultural milieu at the beginning of the twentieth century is very different from its status at the century's end. At the beginning of the century, Hebrew literature had helped define the character of this cultural milieu and its various debates. This includes the debates surrounding the then emerging Zionist identity, which was only one possibility facing the Hebrew-speaking cultural communities in the Western world. This character defining status of literature is central, as literature was the stage for cultural debates, from the most personal aspects to the most clearly political, and because literature was seen simultaneously as a personal, lyrical medium, and as a propagandist tool.
At the century's start, the literature within the Hebrew-speaking milieu was very powerful for a number of reasons: First, toward the end of the nineteenth century, Hebrew literature grew closer to the perception of what constituted great European literatures than it had at any time during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hebrew literature then reflected the superior Western literature. Second, the literature was the product of a people for whom being the "People of the Book" was an important part of its self-image. When this people shifted from a milieu dominated by the "Book of Books" to a secular milieu, its cultural leaders needed to mend the crack in its image as the "People of the Book." A third reason is the growth of political streams--among them the Zionist movement--from the literature, in the absence of other public forums in the nineteenth century available to Jewish, national secular philosophers. The Hebrew, Zionist, literature of Eretz-Israel became the only Hebrew literature for historical reasons--the Holocaust that decimated European Jewry and its culture, the establishment of the State of Israel, and American Jewry's lack of a need for a Hebrew identity to continue its existence. When Modern Hebrew literature established itself, its foundations and heritage took on a mythic character, and within that myth a place of symbolic honor is reserved for the Eretz-Israel literature of the beginning of the twentieth century.
In this way, the central internal debate of Hebrew literature at the start of the century also bears the character of a cultural myth. This is so even though it is not in part, even in large part, an open or direct debate, but one that derives from positions taken up in the literary work. Because of the centrality of Brenner and of Agnon in the formation of the Hebrew literature of the twentieth century from its beginning, this debate can be termed in short the debate between the "Brenner School" and the "Agnon School." These two--Joseph Haim Brenner and Shmuel Joseph Agnon--together with Micha Joseph Berdichevski and Uri Nissan Genesin, determined the character of Hebrew prose in the twentieth century. I will demonstrate that both historically and retrospectively, Brenner and Agnon set the boundaries of Hebrew literature in the twentieth century. I include Genesin in the Brenner School and Berdichevski in the Agnon School.
These two literary approaches that are here called schools emerged under different circumstances. Brenner was murdered in 1921 while he was still a relatively young writer, while Agnon--winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature--died two generations later at a ripe old age. Agnon is considered, at least symbolically, the representative of twentieth-century Hebrew literature both within Israel and outside it. Brenner was from the outset an active figure socially. He was always involved in social life; he wrote literary and cultural criticism and even political criticism. Agnon confined himself to the literary arena, and consistently refused to express any cultural views, not to speak of political views, that had no relation to the literary work. The literary ethos that Brenner created was social, political, current, direct, and open; he was connected with the Labor movement--the central movement in Eretz-Israel--and immediately became one of its symbols. The literary ethos formed by Agnon was the opposite: the ethos of one who is solely involved with literature and denies any modern social relation, even if that relation is basically literary, sophisticated, and rich in meaning. Thus, the symbolic debate within Israeli culture between Brenner's works and those of Agnon, or the debate between the schools, was not a direct and immediate debate. Only in the course of the years, as Agnon's works became increasingly accepted, were they considered an expression of a symbolic world view, though Agnon did not present it thus directly or present anything, in fact, beyond the literary expression.
The notion of a school presupposes a convergence of composer, composition, and reader; its concepts are constructed partly by the writer who created the school, partly by other writers who see themselves as belonging to that school, partly by literary critics, and partly by readers of the work and readers of its critics. Therefore, the literary school is the result of a social process produced by years of activity. What was clear regarding Brenner's works from the outset, nearly became unanimously accepted regarding Agnon, albeit as a result of a process over time. Thus, the division into two schools is the result of a retrospective view that can rightfully be presented now. If one follows Agnon's writing, on the one hand, one will see that it was consistent throughout the years and that the earlier works predicted the later ones. But on the other hand, the Agnon School is to a large extent an empty school--his world view is accepted but real heirs to this unique artist are few and those are only partial heirs.
Yet, in spite of all that has been said here, each of the schools can be summed up in a sentence or two. The Brenner School casts doubt on the social values of Judaism and of Zionism, which sprang up in response to Judaism's modern needs. The Brenner School uses contemporary revolutionary concepts to conduct a debate about the Jewish, secular, Zionist person. It does not hesitate to express its conclusions, even if that involves a lack of confidence in the human potential, especially in the Jewish human potential, and also in secular-Zionist moves. The Agnon School …
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Publication information: Article title: The Brenner School and the Agnon School in Hebrew Literature of the Twentieth Century. Contributors: Bartana, Ortsion - Author. Journal title: Hebrew Studies Journal. Volume: 45. Publication date: Annual 2004. Page number: 49+. © 2008 National Association of Professors of Hebrew. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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